South Canterbury’s Oldest Building Was Built – 1853

In 1853, after eight years living at Purau, Bank Peninsula and two years at the future site of Timaru, George Rhodes moved his family to the ‘Levels’ and constructed South Canterbury’s oldest building.

The Rhodes and Waitaha (Canterbury) were first introduced in 1836 when the whaling Captain from the ‘Australian’ climbed the Port Hills and looked out over the vast Waitaha Plains. William Barnard Rhodes later reported that it was just swamps and lagoons. But he was impressed, giving the area its first European name of Port Cooper and the Port Cooper Plains – in honour of one of his employers, Daniel Cooper. Two years later, he returned and introduced the first hoof stock to Banks Peninsula via Akaroa.

In 1843, George Rhodes arrived from England to take over his brother’s operations in Port Cooper as William had settled in Wellington and was making quite a name for himself. George purchased ‘Purau’ from the Greenwood brothers and this became the main hub of the Rhodes South Island farming businesses. In 1850, George was joined by another brother, Robert Heaton Rhodes, just before the first four Canterbury Association ships arrived that December. The brothers were in fact sheep dipping when they witnessed the arrival of the historic ‘Charlotte Jane’ as she sailed past Purau and dropped anchor at Lyttelton.

It was 1850, that the brothers got word of cheap land further down south in Canterbury. They had to apply for pastoral licenses twice; first in December 1850 which was denied and then again in June 1851. George farmed at the ‘Levels’ until his untimely death from a chill in 1864. His death spelt the end of the Rhodes brothers being in business together. The ‘Levels’ and Purau were sold with Robert moving his family to the estate of Elmwood in Christchurch, now the suburb of Elmwood. The mansion there was knocked down to make way for Heaton Normal Intermediate School in the 1950’s. Robert had purchased the bottom paddocks of the estate of ‘Strowan’ – now known as St Andrew’s College on Papanui Road.

As for the ’Levels’, it was purchased by a former Rhodes employee, a fella known by the name Orbell and this family still remains on the land today.

My favourite part of the story will always be the robbery of 1000 sheep from the ‘Levels’ by outlaw James MacKenzie in 1855.  His collie ‘Friday’ was banned from Canterbury soil for her role in the crime but she found herself back at the ‘Levels’ as George’s most favourite dog a few years later.  MacKenzie, during his trial said that she would work for no one else but him and it was true.  She never mustered sheep again, despite being asked to do so in Celtic as that was the language MacKenzie trained her in!

*Photo taken by Chris Bulovic*


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